by Hope Madden
A gawky adolescent plays video games and saves the world. It’s easy to see why Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is so popular with young boys. But the truth is that this SciFi thriller is more than just a simple adolescent male fantasy. It’s an intricately written coming of age story that pulls readers in, not just with the video game storyline, but a video game structure, as the hero defeats certain challenges before moving on to the next level, so to speak.
Though his screenplay is often inelegant in its adaptation, clunking through sections that must have been quite impressive in novel form, writer/director Gavin Hood’s affection for the source material is evident. So, too, is his skill with FX as well as casting.
Asa Butterfield (Hugo) leads the cast as Ender Wiggin, the pinch-shouldered spindle hoping to make it through the ranks of the military academy to help defend earth against an impending alien invasion. Butterfield’s vulnerability – physical and emotional – and obvious intelligence provide the character the compelling internal conflict the role requires.
SciFi legend Harrison Ford shows some effort as Ender’s commanding officer, while the always wonderful Viola Davis gives the film its emotional core, and allows Hood an opportunity to mine this story for some social commentary. “It used to be a war crime to recruit soldiers younger than 15,” she scolds Ford’s Colonel Graff.
Though visually impressive, the film’s cosmic FX pale in comparison to the entirely superior Gravity. Still, Hood knows how to put a crowd in the middle of a video game without giving off the immediately dated feel of Tron.
Though sometimes derivative, (Act 2 feels a bit too much like Top Gun, if you substitute teenaged video game nerds for hot, ambiguously gay volleyball players), the film eventually packs an emotional wallop. The climax is effective, but the resolution is rushed. These issues are symptomatic of the effort as a whole – fitfully entertaining, absorbing and gorgeous, and yet tonally challenged and poorly paced.
Hood’s greatest failing is that he settles for a thrill ride when he was handed a beloved, epic coming of age tragedy. Oddly enjoyable and intermittently wonderful, the film still feels like a mild letdown.